Best practice makes more perfect

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Recent research work suggesting that national vocational qualifications are failing is substantially in error and misses the point about why they are perceived in the way they are.

I refer in particular to the latest report of research commissioned by the Gatsby Foundation and carried out by the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance and the London University Institute of Education, and reported extensively in The TES (October 4 and October 11).

National vocational qualifications, done properly, are good qualifications. I run a work-based service at my college and we work with various organisations which sponsor staff to do NVQs. We believe that the NVQ should benefit both the candidate and the organisation, and we relate all NVQ advice and guidance to the candidate's particular organisation.

A little time spent getting to know the set-up and the type of business pays dividends, and makes the NVQ more meaningful for the candidates. When they work on a particular company-related project, they gain knowledge and experience which can then be transferred to more general situations. Our candidates work hard to achieve the qualification and I am disappointed when I read that NVQs are failing, that they are not achieving what was hoped for and intended. This is just not true in our case.

There are, however, reasons for this perception. First, NVQs contain a set of assessment standards which are being used primarily as training syllabuses by many deliverers. This is not feasible.

Second, there is output-related funding. When NVQs were made the outcomes for Youth Training and Employment Training and time constraints were placed on achieving them, the original philosophy went out of the window. People were expected to achieve in a specific number of weeks (often far too short a time) so that targets could be met.

I believe that in order to develop competence and acquire skills, people need time to practise, repeat and consolidate. There are schemes with small amounts of work experience, with assessments following on immediately from training with pressure to achieve in the shortest possible time. This dilutes the qualification and leads to criticism. It also causes problems in other respects because people who have worked for, say, 12 or 15 years who would like to achieve an NVQ in order to have their learning and experience recognised, wonder why they should bother if someone with no experience can achieve it in something like 12 weeks.

These prescribed outputs also mean that often only the lower levels are being attempted, as higher-level NVQs require more time, more experience and a position at an appropriate level.

There are those of us who believe in NVQs and want their credibility to be enhanced and maintained. This is difficult when we are constantly having to defend the qualifications against accusations and bad press. Perhaps we could focus on the good practice for a change, and show examples of NVQs working to increase competence in the workforce.

Most of my candidates work to achieve a Level 3 (A-level equivalent) and although many are administrative and service staff I do not agree that this makes their NVQ any less of an achievement, as some of the researchers seem to suggest.

Perhaps we could highlight the equal opportunities issue here which gives some areas of the workforce, hitherto overlooked, the opportunity to gain qualifications and raise their profile.

Perhaps we should consider a system where the unemployed and those seeking further education or re-training are trained and are given the opportunity to apply that training in a working environment so that competence can develop gradually through experience and "doing". Then, and only then, do we assess and reward outputs and achievements.

The qualification would then mean something and the aim of developing a skilled workforce would be achievable. This would also establish the concept for the higher-level NVQs where assessment could follow on from the application of the theory and learning acquired through one of the more traditional professional taught qualifications.

Wendy Nash is a senior tutor at Croydon College

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